Cindy M. Rosen, executive director of the Americas-focused branch of the Transportation Asset Protection Association, told me that the work of tracking misappropriated assets across borders, territories and law enforcement jurisdictions is often futile, especially when goods are moved out of the country. country before being sold again in the United States online. Rosen would know: Her organization is made up of insurance companies, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, security companies, carriers, truckers, railroad companies and manufacturers. “You’re basically trying to catch a fly in a dark room,” she says.
More cargo is transported by trucks than by trains, and much more cargo is stolen from trucks as well. Trucking is a chaotic industry, with hundreds of thousands of companies, some as small as a single driver and a truck. Railroads, on the other hand, are essentially duopolistic: only two companies, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, serve the entire western United States. (CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway dominate the east.) Against trucks, thieves use various forms of digital spoofing and cyber fraud, including something called a dummy van, in which someone poses as a licensed truck driver online and diverts a truck’s load. This type of theft increased almost 600 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to CargoNet data. And on railways, some cargo (coal, grain, cement, fertilizers, petrochemicals, wood) are too cumbersome to attract thieves. It’s easier to run out with popsicles or the newest Nike sneakers.
But railroads have increasingly been competing to transport more containerized freight. They want to make the most of the rise of e-commerce. The fastest growing segment of rail traffic is so-called intermodal, which refers to the shipping of containers and trailers that move in more than one transit mode: ships, trains and trucks. These containers typically transport goods destined for stores or packages destined for consumers. Amazon, for example, now has its own branded containers, in part to meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions (transporting a ton of goods by rail produces about eight times fewer emissions than by truck). These intermodal trains tend to be long, which can make them more vulnerable.
For the past decade, in an effort to achieve greater efficiency and amid unprecedented profits, the country’s largest railroads have been linking longer trains. Some are now two or even three miles long. At the same time, these companies reduced the number of employees by almost 30 percent, so fewer people now drive these longer trains. (Currently, the Federal Railroad Administration does not impose limits on the length of freight trains, despite safety concerns.) The tracks leading away from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are packed with long trains carrying intermodal containers packed with imports from Asia: electronics, toys, clothing, shoes, food and drinks – just the kind of deals that thieves they find more attractive.
“Look at this?” One One of the plainclothes detectives from the LAPD’s Cargo Theft Unit was directing my attention to a box of electronic bird feeders with a yellow sticker showing a picture of batteries. “Thieves look for signs like this because they know there will be some type of electronic device inside,” he said. We were in a 7,500-square-foot windowless warehouse, surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire, located under Interstate 10 in downtown Los Angeles. The warehouse, filled with $5 million worth of stolen BNSF Railway shipments, belonged to the California Department of Transportation, but had been rented or subleased by thieves whom detectives were still trying to identify. They crossed the site almost accidentally a few days earlier, while tracking a truck full of driven tires.